Today marks exactly 229 days since my resignation from the University of Maryland took effect. Which is an extremely meaningless number. (Well, it is prime, so that’s something.) But for whatever reason, it felt like a good day to reflect a little bit about my departure from academia, now that some chunk of time stands between me and that decision.1
To do a quick recap, the proximate cause for my departure was a garden-variety two-body problem. My spouse and I were both linguists, and in fact both linguists of a very particular type working in the same particular (sub‑)sub‑field. The chances of us both finding academic jobs in the same town never seemed that high to begin with.
That said, if this were really the only issue, I’m pretty confident I would still be in academia. For one thing, in the wake of the events of 2020, academia is slowly, begrudgingly, reluctantly coming to terms with the reality of remote work. (This coming-to-terms is, imo, still in its infancy, and there will have to be much, much more of it if academia hopes to have any chance in hell of competing for talent with the rest of the employment world in the long run. But that’s probably a discussion for another day.) Moreover, if academic linguistics in particular were in a healthier state, I think it’s reasonable to assume that our two-body problem would have been solvable even without remote work.
There’s really no way for me to substantiate this last assertion without making some statements that will come across as self-praise. I apologize in advance, but some additional context is called for, otherwise this assertion would seem fanciful at best, and delusional at worst. So here goes…: back when there still seemed to be some hope of securing appointments for both my spouse and me at the same university, one of the universities in question asked me to prepare an informal “dossier” of sorts, explaining why I’d be a valuable hire etc. etc.. This was a strange exercise, to be sure, but I will say that in the course of carrying it out, I did discover some interesting facts, some of which provide the kind of context I was just talking about. In the interest of not indulging in too much self-praise, though, I’ll pick exactly one factoid from that dossier: it was spring 2022, and I was looking at the citation counts for the last 10 years of Linguistic Inquiry Monographs published by MIT Press. Needless to say, this criterion is not the be-all & end-all of anything, and is skewed in countless ways. LI Monographs is a series with a decidedly generative bent. It has also been accused repeatedly of playing institutional favorites (and I did get my doctoral degree from the same institution that the series was born out of, after all). Not to mention all the other biases that any exercise of counting-citations-of-prestige-publications is subject to. With all those caveats, though, I did find out something interesting: my 2014 monograph was the most cited of the twenty-two or twenty-three titles that came out over that 10-year period, with nearly twice the number of citations of the second-most-cited title (Pesetsky’s 2013 offering on case in Russian). Again: one data point, not-at-all free of biases. But a data point nonetheless; and I assure you there are several more of that kind where that came from, it’s just that it would be increasingly unseemly to just continue to list them here.
Okay, so here’s the assertion for which the above, overly-long, overly-tortured paragraph is supposed to provide context: an academic field is deeply broken when a person like this has virtually zero professional mobility. The day is not long enough for me to list all the downstream negative effects that this has, but one of them that absolutely needs to be mentioned is that it leaves one with effectively zero recourse against problematic, abusive colleagues if those colleagues are tenured. (Not a hypothetical.) Before anyone is tempted to misunderstand: I’m not suggesting that only well-cited scholars deserve protection from abusive colleagues! Of course the opposite, if anything, is the case. The point is that populating your workplace with people with zero professional mobility removes one of the major levers of power that fellow employees have against such abusive individuals. The absence of professional mobility means that people will mostly just stay & put up with it. (Have I mentioned “Not a hypothetical”?)
I’ve discussed elsewhere some of the causes behind this state of affairs, as I see them. Some are quite general to academia, such as the “grantification of everything.” Others are rather specific to linguistics itself, such as the ongoing erasure of any real theoretical syntax in favor of a kind of “syntactified semantics”, a trend for which Chomsky’s so-called Minimalism has proven to be a powerful accelerant.2
This last part is in some sense “old news”; but some of what the passage of time has afforded me is the realization that my alma mater, and several of my PhD advisors in particular, were and are complicit in the linguistics-specific trends in question. In fact, I would go as far as to say that alongside UMass Amherst, MIT has been Ground Zero for this syntactified-semantics-in-lieu-of-syntax movement that has taken hold of theoretical linguistics (at least of the generative kind). Speaking of the passage of time, I now remember that one of my MA advisors back at Tel Aviv University warned me of this, regarding MIT. (That person’s advice was that I should nevertheless still go to MIT to pursue my PhD, but be vigilant about this particular point once I get there.) Unfortunately, I think I was approximately 15 years away, back then, from being able to truly understand what that person meant. Live & learn.
As I write this, I have been thinking a lot about some of my contemporaries who have left theoretical linguistics for other (which more or less entails “greener”) pastures. Some of them maintain a toe or two in the academic world: zero-FTE academic appointments, guest lectures, even sometimes the occasional publication in an academic publishing venue. I should probably file this away in the “things that might change when more time passes” drawer, but I’m struck by the visceral reaction I have when I try to project myself into that posture. I actually had two papers at fairly advanced stages of the publication pipeline (these two, it should be said, were slated to appear in edited volumes, not in journals; but still…), which I myself nixed following my resignation. One or both of them may still come out, since I gave the editors carte blanche to do with the manuscripts as they please – anything from discarding them to publishing them as-is to publishing them with a note explaining why they might be unpolished/unproofread/whatever – but I can honestly say it wouldn’t make much of a difference to me one way or another. The manuscripts are still downloadable from my old academic homepage anyway, so it’s not like the scholarship has been retcon’d. If someone wants to pick up the thread, it’s there for them to do so. What’s changed, I guess, is that if they don’t want to pick up the thread, it’s just as well, as far as I’m concerned. That is a very strange thing to feel, but there you have it.
I’m willing to bet that there will come a day when I will view this point in time as still being “right after I quit academia,” and feel that I have a much better perspective then than I did today. But today is now, and these are my thoughts today. ↩
This trend has resulted in siphoning off many (most?) syntax jobs to people whose primary concern is linguistic meaning. Nothing wrong with having linguistic meaning as your primary scientific concern, of course. But syntax, that ain’t. ↩